Audacious, delightful and just about perfect from first note to last, Alain Resnais’ “Same Old Song” presents a familiar tune in a clever new arrangement. A sly urban melodrama full of amusing twists and turns, sprightly pic plugs snippets of lip-synched popular songs into the mouths of its dissimulating and prevaricating characters. The device, jarring at first, is a great conveyor of both pathos and yocks, as it becomes clear that song lyrics are every bit as direct and memorable, concise and wrenching, as good spoken dialogue. There’s little doubt that “Same Old Song” will do dynamite business at Gallic wickets where locals will gladly fall for its hooks, lines and synchers. However, devoted and ingenious handling is essential if pic and its buoyant 36-snippet score are to score offshore.
Dedicating the film in the opening credits to the late Dennis Potter of “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective” fame, Resnais could have called this latest effort “Singing Defectives” — but if the characters have flaws, the film does not. It also would be a mistake to catalog this unpretentious pic as some sort of intellectual exercise that only rabid Francophiles could possibly appreciate. The film is infinitely more accessible to the average viewer than those that secured Resnais’ international rep, “Last Year at Marienbad” or “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”
Pic was written by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, the prolific pair of writer-performers who penned stage and screen hits “Cuisine et dependances” and “Un air de famille,” and who brilliantly adapted Alan Ayckbourn’s very British 16-part legit play “Intimate Exchanges” into Resnais’ 1993 “Smoking/No Smoking,” which swept the Cesars but remains unreleased in the U.S. Jaoui and Bacri are very good at scripting attenuated gags in which it takes a while for the other shoe to drop.
While finishing her history dissertation, Camille (Jaoui) gives group lecture tours of Paris. Nicolas (Bacri), apparently a well-to-do businessman, is back in Paris after eight years. He and Camille’s sister, Odile (Sabine Azema), used to be an item. Nicolas is now married with kids, and business exec Odile is married to Claude (Pierre Arditi), a somewhat furtive and wishy-washy fellow. A semi-regular participant in Camille’s tours is Simon (Andre Dussollier), who says he’s doing research for his historical radio dramas.
Odile is thinking of buying a lavish penthouse apartment brokered by suave real estate agent Marc (Lambert Wilson). Marc and Camille embark on an affair, while Simon pines for her from afar. Nicolas also is looking for the perfect apartment in which to live with the family that’s supposed to join him once he’s settled.
Into this basic network of six characters float obstacles, misunderstandings, petty and not-so-petty betrayals and a consistently entertaining range of star-crossed developments, many of them very funny. Humor stems from the audience knowing more about the characters than they know about themselves, as they indulge in the constant posturing and half-truths endemic to modern life.
There are no “musical numbers.” Seamlessly segueing in and out of spoken dialogue, the actors unselfconsciously lip-synch excerpts from famous recordings by mostly well-known singers — literally without missing a beat. Put together like a timepiece that runs a little slow at first before snapping into precision, the script would still function well if dialogue were used instead of songs. As it is, the musical elements definitely are the stylistic icing on the narrative cake.
French-speakers will get extra pleasure from the recognition factor when thesps weave in and out of music hall and radio staples. But auds who don’t know Arletty from Jane Birkin or Maurice Chevalier from Johnny Halliday will never feel lost.
Cast is ideal in tailor-made roles that are effortlessly brought to life. Both sound work and editing are aces, with the sometimes elastic, sometimes split-second intros and exits handled with aplomb.
Result is a bittersweet delight that cements the 75-year-old Resnais’ status as one of international cinema’s most playful and innovative elder statesmen. In an ideal marketplace, his love for and command of cinema would reach well beyond the arthouse circuit.